The special post-Super Bowl episode of "The Blacklist" scored predictably high ratings, but if history is any indication, the James Spader vehicle may not see much of a lift when it returns to NBC's lineup Thursday night.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, Sunday night's installment of "The Blacklist" delivered 25.7 million viewers and an 8.4 rating in the 18-49 demo. And while that performance gave "The Blacklist" bragging rights to the season's second highest-rated scripted telecast -- the Season 5 premiere of AMC's "The Walking Dead" on Oct. 12 scared up a record 8.7 -- for a Super Sunday spectacle, it was small potatoes.
Going back to Super Bowl XXII in 1988, no fewer than 25 postgame broadcasts have beaten "The Blacklist" in the dollar demo, while 18 Big Game lead-outs drew more overall viewers. Still, 25.7 million viewers is nothing to sneeze at in an increasingly fragmented broadcast universe, especially when you stop to consider that "The Blacklist" didn't conclude until nearly a quarter to midnight on the East Coast.
So why is the "The Blacklist" unlikely to steamroll the competition in its new Thursday 9 p.m. time slot? After all, Sunday night's episode not only introduced a formidable baddie in Ron Perlman ("Sons of Anarchy"), but it also ended without a resolution. (Tonight's episode concludes a two-part story arc.) Given all that, how is it that "The Blacklist" may find itself outgunned in Thursday prime?
For one thing, scripted series rarely reap the benefit of that one-time Super Bowl jolt. The all-time record holder, a one-hour episode of "Friends" that aired out of the Dallas-Pittsburgh game on Jan. 28, 1996, delivered a staggering 52.9 million viewers and a 28.2 in the demo. (The game itself averaged a then-record 94.1 million viewers, a mark that stood for 12 years.)
Four nights later, "Friends" drew 33.6 million viewers, and while that marked an 11% improvement over its season-to-date average, the show dropped back to its customary levels the following week. (Should anyone need be reminded of the power of NBC's mid-90s Thursday night roster, it's worth noting that that night's "Friends" was out-rated by fellow "Must See TV" stalwarts "Seinfeld" and "ER.")
More recently, Fox's "New Girl" in 2014 actually lost three-tenths of a ratings point between its last episode before the Super Bowl and its first airdate afterward (1.6 from a 1.9), and CBS's "Elementary" the previous year was flat at a 2.2. "Grey's Anatomy" is perhaps the only scripted series to enjoy sustained growth out of its post-Super Bowl exposure; Shonda Rhimes' sudsy hospital romp continued to set ratings records through the end of its third season -- a full year after it aired in the postgame slot.
Incidentally, established series aren't alone in feeling the post-Super Bowl letdown. Since 1979, 13 broadcast series have premiered during America's grand secular holiday, and of these, more than half were not picked up for a second season. For every "The Wonder Years," there was a "MacGruder and Loud."
Leaving past performance aside, the greatest challenges that lay ahead for "The Blacklist" have everything to do with its newfound competitive set. Over the course of its first 30 episodes, the show has lead out of NBC's ratings juggernaut, "The Voice," giving it a considerable advantage over its rivals on ABC and CBS. In its eight final Monday night broadcasts, "The Blacklist" averaged 10.1 million viewers and a 2.7 in the demo, eclipsing "Castle" (1.8) and "NCIS: Los Angeles" (1.6).
But without the high-octane "Voice" lead-in ("The Blacklist" tonight airs out of a repeat of Sunday's episode; next week's installment will follow the premiere of the eight-part miniseries "The Slap"), Spader and Co. must contend with broadcast's second highest-rated drama, the kicky Beltway potboiler, "Scandal." Season-to-date, "Scandal" is averaging a 3.2 in the dollar demo, and last week's episode drew a 3.6.
Male viewers may not be enough to tilt the scales in "The Blacklist's" favor, either. While "Scandal" is one of TV's most female-friendly shows (women accounted for more than three-quarters of last week's audience), "The Blacklist" is hardly a boy's club. On average, men make up around 43% of the procedural's demo deliveries.
For all that, the feeling at 30 Rock is that NBC has to do something about its troubled Thursday night lineup. Drastic times call for drastic measures, and ditching comedy for the first time in 35 years and moving its biggest drama ahead three nights certainly justify the adjective.
"Thursday has been a problem for us for the last few years," NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt told reporters earlier this winter. "It's a very desirable night for advertisers, and…it should be a big, exciting night of television. We think that while the move of 'The Blacklist' is certainly risky, the only way to really reinvigorate that night is to jumpstart it with something like 'The Blacklist.'"
Greenblatt added that the process of reinvigorating Thursday night will take a good deal of time. In the near term, we'll know how Red Reddington takes to his new digs tomorrow morning when the Nielsen ratings hit the wire.